“You put Basil in ratatouille?”
Fans of John Cleese’s “Fawlty Towers” will recognize this from the episode where Manuel thinks that the chef, Terry, has put his pet rat, Basil, in ratatouille.
My trials with ratatouille went from being mundane to fascinating after I watched the movie Ratatouille. The namesake dish in the movie is based on Thomas Keller’s ratatouille recipe and I was inspired to try it out. And it was love at first bite. Keller claims that his recipe is cleaned up version of “Imam Bayildi (Imam Fainted)”. Since then, I have read Guy Savoy, the renowned Parisian chef, claiming the same. In Bayildi, young Italian eggplants are stuffed with fried onions and cooked in a tomato pomegranate sauce – makes one swoon with delight if not faint altogether. I don’t quite see the connection between bayildi and ratatouille but I accept the wisdom of these great culinary giants.
There is no basil in Keller’s ratatouille. It starts with a piperade sauce which is the easiest part. Next comes chopping up of zucchini, eggplant and tomato into thin discs, tossing them in olive oil and thyme and layering them with each other and on top of the sauce. It helps to buy these vegetables of approx equal size e.g. a young Japanese eggplant and a zucchini are about the same size. Finally comes a brushing of the vinaigrette and baking in a low temperature oven.
Since this is really about the vegetables, the taste depends very strongly on the quality of the vegetables, particularly the tomatoes. The end product is redolent with umaminess of the tomatoes. The vegetables melt in your mouth, the sauce glistens with olive oil, tartness of tomatoes and sweetness of peppers balance playfully on your tongue. All in all, a perfectly satisfying dish to be mopped up to the last drop with a hearty bread.
In Guy Savoy’s version, the vegetables are layered on a bed of fried onions instead of piperade. The ratatouille season is just beginning in sunny California, so I am certain I will try that version soon.